Amy Thomas, third year Bachelor of Social Science student and GLPer.
Over the last several years during my time at Macquarie University I have studied and researched refugees merely in terms of statistics; where they are fleeing from, where they are traveling to and how many there are estimated to be. We have covered an array of international treaties and domestic policies that apply to their fundamental rights as human beings.
We have not however, been provided insight into the personal stories and struggles of refugees themselves. We do not learn about the challenges they face in fleeing their country, finding permanent homes or in gaining legal recognition of their rights. We simply do not study refugees in terms of their experiences as individuals, as they seek a safe place to live and work.
It was our tour through the Refugee Camp in My Neighbourhood, as part of GLP’s Cultural Series Day, which gave me the opportunity to hear real stories from refugees themselves. Located in Auburn, a Refugee Welcome Zone as of 2004, the interactive program highlighted to us the extreme difficulties they encounter as they flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live.
The tour consisted of several activities that captured the realities of living in a refugee camp and was itself run by a number of refugees who had experienced their own journey in seeking asylum here in Australia.
We were given two minutes to quickly choose 5 things we would take with us upon being forced to flee the country, while noting asylum seekers often do not have time to do just that. Upon entering the camp we were confronted by security. A man yelled at us in a foreign language, while taking from us our jackets, bags and the few things we had selected to bring.
This gave me a sense of how truly terrifying it would be arriving in a foreign country, where you do not speak the language, do not know what is going to happen to you or your family, and have the few things that were yours taken from your hands.
To register our ‘family’ with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) we were given documents in a foreign language that we simply could not complete. We saw what was meant to be a toilet used by hundreds of people, a mere hole in the ground, while ‘landmines’ throughout the camp reminded us of health hazards, including contaminated water and infectious disease.
The difficult decisions often faced by refugees were highlighted to us, as we were made to choose between either staying in an overcrowded house unfit for our family or risk paying a year’s rent in advance for better accommodation, without the guarantee of finding employment.
The simulated camp was confronting and opened my eyes to the conditions suffered by millions of asylum seekers globally. Yet the most shocking aspect of the tour for me personally was the stories and pictures drawn by children, pleading to be released from the camps. The drawings showed stick figures crying behind fences, with sunshine and trees on the other side out of reach.
Although it was undeniably upsetting to see, I am grateful I had the opportunity to grasp a greater understanding and awareness of such a significant global issue. I feel the tour has further opened my eyes to the realities suffered by refugees and given me a new perspective on an area I thought I was already familiar with. I know I will take this experience with me through the rest of my studies and into the future as I engage in conversations surrounding human rights and issues of global concern.